A couple of weeks ago I went away with some friends on their family houseboat. Had a fantastic time, didn’t quite manage to blow anything up and my total number of sandfly bites was under 20. I decided to take with me some of the great books on CS education that I have been dipping into for the past few years, but have never had enough time to sit down and read properly. And just think.
The main target for this trip was: Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher.
This is a fantastic, if occasionally depressing book – full of inspirational stories of young women who entered CS despite a lack of encouragement, and having to confront environments that were not necessarily always welcoming. What I found most interesting was the discussion on previous studies that had explored gender-based differences, and how our perceptions change the way that we deal with others. One example I recall, is the study by Condry and Condry (1976) which had a series of adult subjects watch a video tape of a baby reacting to several exciting toys, including a jack in the box. Those subjects that were told that the baby was a boy, interpreted his reaction of screaming as excitement, while those that were told that the baby was a girl interpreted it as fear. This is just one example, but Unlocking the Clubhouse is full of stories of adults reacting based on gender, and their perceptions of interest and capability. It certainly made me more aware of how I interact with my students, as I certainly don’t want to continue those assumptions.
There are some things that are recommended in the book that we are already doing here at the University of Adelaide (multiple entry paths for CS, building support for good teaching, increasing outreach), but there are some that we can do better at. I don’t think we can ever stop increasing support for good teaching, and helping and encouraging our teaching staff in their role. We can also never stop increasing our support for outreach: robogals and similar groups are just amazing, but will always appreciate financial and other support. Our Women in Technology Challenge grows each year, and doesn’t look like stopping.
We can also invest some effort in diversifying our curriculum – providing projects that demonstrate the broad utility of Computer Science, and how it can be of benefit to us all. Honestly, I don’t think there is a way that we can lose if we do that – we, our students, our staff and our community, need to see how important and relevant Computer Science is and will be to their every day lives.
For the past three years, I have been giving the Open Day talks for our faculty. About half of those presentations is devoted to talking about how Engineers, Computer Scientists and Mathematicians have impacted the lives of those in the audience. And only since they woke up that morning, and made their way to our campus. And it is so easy, once you get started, to think of multiple examples where they have used the results of our efforts. I think I will try to do this exercise for Computer Science only…. any help appreciated!